Three years ago, a young Pakistani girl bravely spoke out about Taliban atrocities in her hometown of Mingora, in Pakistan's Swat Valley. She gave voice to thousands of girls who were banned from attending school and forced to remain hidden from public view.

For her courage, Malala Yousafzai, now 14 years old, was awarded a national peace prize from the Pakistani government and respect and admiration from around the world.

In recent years, life for girls like Malala has improved. The Taliban were cleared from the area, girls returned to new schools and women began learning trades.

But the Taliban is resilient and brutal.

Last week we were reminded of its repression of women and girls and their disregard for humanity when a gunman boarded Malala's school bus, asked for her by name, and shot her twice in the head.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on this "Western-minded girl" and announced it "will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban."

This vicious attack represents my worst fears about the possible return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan and their continued presence in Pakistan. Make no mistake: the future of women and girls hangs in the balance.

We all remember the days when women and girls suffered under the brutal oppression of Taliban rule. They were banned from working or going to school, they lost access to medical care, and they were forced to wear the burqa when they left their homes. Those who violated these laws were subject to severe abuses and even death.

With help from the United States and the international community, Afghanistan has made progress since the fall of the Taliban. The new Afghan Constitution guarantees women's equality before the law, including the right to health care, education and work.

  • It set aside 25 percent of seats in the parliament for women.
     
  • Girls now make up approximately 35 percent of Afghan students, up from virtually none under Taliban rule.
     
  • In Pakistan's Swat Valley, the number of girls attending school increased by 45 percent from 72,263 in 2008 to 105,487 in 2010.

But women and girls like Malala continue to face threats and violence, especially in areas controlled by the Taliban. Girls have been sprayed with acid and poison gas, schools have been burned, and women and girls have been shot and killed simply for working and speaking out for women's rights. 

Malala was targeted because she refused to remain silent as the Taliban turned women and girls into second-class citizens. She was targeted because she was an advocate for education.

When I traveled to Afghanistan in April I learned that schools in 13 of the 17 districts in Ghazni province had been threatened by the Taliban and closed down. And in July, Afghanistan's minister for higher education, Obaidullah Obaid, survived an IED attack on his convoy as he traveled in northern Afghanistan.

There will likely be more attacks like the one on Malala. The Taliban are intent on using violence and intimidation against anyone, even young girls, who dare to oppose their backwards and oppressive vision. We cannot remain silent.

We must continue to help the Afghan and Pakistani governments ensure that young girls like Malala can grow up in peace and security, get an education and contribute to a better future for their countries.

That means pressing ahead with training Afghan security forces, pushing Pakistan to do more to protect women and girls, and helping Pakistan take necessary steps to remove the safe haven that allows the Pakistani Taliban and others to operate. But we must also focus on using soft power, helping build new schools, train teachers and provide textbooks.

At a conference on women's leadership earlier this year in Pakistan, Malala--wise beyond her years--said, "I dream of a country in which education prevails and no one sleeps hungry."

The barbaric attack on this brave girl should be condemned by the civilized world. I commend the Pakistani government and military for joining me in expressing solidarity with Malala and denouncing the attack. No stone should be left unturned to bring those responsible to justice and the United States should be ready to assist in any way we can.